Easily Grown Medicine Plants and Food Crops in the DC area
By Tom Wolfe, RH
I am often asked the questions, “What are the easiest plants to grow in this area?” and, “As an herbalist, what are the first herbs you would recommend to start with in order to learn how effectively herbs can heal?” In this article, I will share the five plants I would choose in order to learn from listening to plants in the DC area. I have chosen five safe but effective plants, one for each of the five elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or the five Pranas of Ayurveda. And, Friends, the good news is these five plants are SOOOOOOOOOO easy to grow. I will also share how inexpensive and easy it is to grow plants under lights in the winter.
Let’s begin by learning about growing plants indoors under lights, and then I will introduce you to the five medicine plants. About a year ago I read a great book named The Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Buber. In that book, Nancy describes how the nooks and corners of her house are filled with an abundance of plants growing under lights and how much joy that brought to her in the cold winter. The thing that intrigued me was that, according to Nancy, regular florescent bulbs worked fine and there was no need for expensive fancy lights. I liked the idea of having an indoor “greenhouse” under lights at Smile Herb Shop and decided to give it a try. In my ignorance and underdeveloped carpentry skills, I thought that installing lights was a big deal and that I must wait until I could pay someone to set it up. So, I asked a Quaker carpenter Friend of mine if he could build a set of grow lights for $300-$400 for me. His reply was, “I could, but I don’t want you to pay me…I’ll teach you how to do it simply with lights that just plug in (hence without the fees of an electrician) for $50.00 for every 12 square feet.” Now, I knew from twelve years of working with Mr. Wilton, Smile’s greenhouse man, that you can grow 50-75 small seedlings per square foot, so my little pea brain quickly realized that even with the cost of seeds that meant it was less than 10 cents per vegetable or herb plant. And that is how I learned to easily grow plants year round under lights. Friends, my witness to you is that it is one of the most joyful things in my life right now. I have veggies, medicines, flowers all doing very well under lights that plug into a regular outlet and install in under 20 minutes. I do not have enough room to go into all of the details in this article, but I can often be found in the garden at Smile during regular volunteer hours (Wed, Thurs, Sat 8am-11am until June 6th) to talk about it in exchange for a little volunteer TLC for the gardens on your part. Friends, it is so easy, and so cheap to be surrounded by so much green.
Now I will tell you about the five supercharged medicine plants that are so strong and too easy to grow. Here are the five plants in order of the five elements: Yarrow for air, Lemon Balm for water, Nettles for wood, Peppermint for fire, and Valerian for earth. Reader, you do not have garden or grow indoors under lights to benefit from these plants, but I encourage you to do so. When you let God, Gaia, and the herbs guide you in a secluded peaceful garden, the pearl of great price that is healing with home-grown herbs will be yours. Herbs are a fragrant balance of heaven and earth. Herbs are a bridge between intellect and intuition, what Ayurveda calls rationalized intuition. Herbs will teach you how to heal yourself if you will give them an honest chance. So join with me, oh seeking readers, on the amazing journey into the inner world of balance with five easily grown herbs as our guides. Our guides are Yarrow, Lemon Balm, Nettles, Peppermint, and Valerian. Five trustworthy Friends that trade us healing and guidance to the spirit for taking care of them in a deeply respectful manner.
Yarrow: Achillea millefolium is our first guide, and she has a special place in my heart, since Yarrow is the herb that convinced me to become an herbalist. I had a cough of three years standing that “modern medicine” had not been able to touch. When I met my first herbal teacher, Cecilia, she “learned me good” about Yarrow and I was able to heal this cough within one day by simply drinking one gallon of strong Yarrow tea. I, then a student at U. Penn, asked myself, “Why does the University of Pennsylvania not teach this knowledge?” Having uncovered no good answer to the query, I decided to become an herbalist. Hence Smile Herb Shop, seeking herbal knowledge, and this career/calling as an herbalist. Bitter sister Yarrow became my willing muse into the herbal realm. Yarrow is specific to respiration, which in Ayurveda governs the nervous system. Calmness of mind and spirit helps us prepare for conscious digestion of food and events. Yarrow likes full sun and plenty of water. She prefers sandy, loamy soil but will adjust easily enough to richer environments.
Lemon Balm: Melissa officinalis has become my best garden Friend in the springtime and is specific to aiding our ability to retain joy and bliss. In Ayurveda, the building block of all tissue is watery and is known as Rasa Dhatu. There is a whole class of herbs known as Rasayana herbs that build that watery substance. Lemon Balm is in my experience the best herb to build and protect Rasa, which, by the way, allows us to be joyful. Lemon Balm is specific to relaxation and full assimilation of nutrients and knowledge in digestion of food and events. Lemon Balm is so easy to grow, she’ll grow almost anywhere. Lemon Balm is a partial shade plant, preferring morning sun and afternoon shade, and if you’re planting outside, you may want to consider putting down a layer of mulch to protect against harsh sun. Clip Lemon Balm often to produce prolific growth!
Nettles: Urtica dioca is predominately astringent, hence her association with the wood element. She is feisty with a sting, but once one gets past her outward defensive sharpness she is possibly the most healing herb that is easy to grow. Let me tell you Friends, she is sooooo easy to grow. In fact, you will quickly discover that it is hard to keep this sister from growing too strong and being pushy to her neighbors. Nettle root is specific to men with prostate issues; it tones the prostate, improves urine flow, and decreases residual urine. I found out years ago that the textbooks were right about this claim by drinking a gallon of fresh Nettle daily for a couple of weeks in the spring. I saw the difference in urine flow and decrease in retention after three or four days. Then the astringency kicked in and my “watery parts” toned right up. Nettles is a very valuable herb for men who either want to stop peeing at night so much, or who just want to tone up their male bits. Nettles also are specific and the first herb we recommend at Smile for seasonal allergies. In fact, so many folks have learned to take Nettles in the spring that no matter how much we order we cannot seem to keep it in stock. Nettles likes rich soil, full sun, and plenty of water. But like we discussed, she’ll grow anywhere!
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Peppermint: Mentha piperita is my choice for an easily grown plant to represent the fire element. Peppermint wants to spread its gospel of good news everywhere, so it will spread over your entire garden if not contained. We use Peppermint already in so many ways without being conscious of her as the source of our joy, and she obviously deserves more conscious respect and acknowledgement. We put her in our mouths daily as toothpaste, candy, mouthwash, and if we are wise, as herbal medicine. The key to the medicinal use of Peppermint is to make your tea strong enough to feel the warmth in your stomach and small intestine. Peppermint is specific to full transformation in digestion of food and events, specifically ulcerative conditions of the bowels, flatulence, dyspepsia, and motion sickness and nausea during pregnancy. Digestion is under the supervision of the fire element, and so it makes sense that Peppermint increases the flow of bile and digestive juices. Peppermint also smells great and is perfect to introduce young children to the wondrous world of herbs. The young ones love the taste of Peppermint and will sneak into the part of the garden where Peppermint lives to have a mint candy that won’t rot their teeth. Choose a damp spot in your garden to plant peppermint, with rich soil. Peppermint likes plenty of water and partial shade, though she is hardy and will soldier on in most conditions. Plant in a pot if you don’t wish for peppermint to spread.
Valerian: Valeriana officinalis weighs in mightily for the earth element, bringing us back down to our mother earth. Most folks use the root, but I have found that the abundant leaves of Valerian work well also. I found this out because I always trim the plants in my garden regularly to keep the paths clear, so one day I tried to find out if the leaves of Valerian I had just trimmed were quieting like the root. She yielded her peace to me in leaf form more gently than from her strong roots, but her blessing was still found there. Valerian is a very interesting plant in that the roots have a very unusual smell that many liken to dirty socks, while the flowers are sweetest perfume until the late summer when they start to smell extremely earthy too. David Hoffmann, in his textbook for medical students Medical Herbalism, writes, “Valerian’s main uses are anxiety, nervous sleeplessness, and the bodily symptoms of tension, such as muscle cramping and indigestion.” I have found the leaves of Valerian to fulfill that mission and you don’t have to kill the plant to use the leaves. Valerian likes full sun and well-drained soil. It can grow to be very large, and it has a root that goes deep into the soil, so give it plenty of room and lots of water.
These principles are simple, but a bit of commentary is in order. Even Western scientists, who live in the elements of the periodic table, agree that water is a major key to health, and that we should drink a minimum of eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. One way to insure that this happens is to prepare 64-128 ounces of herbal tea daily and place it under refrigeration. This way, one knows that when the tea is gone we have met our daily minimum. In addition to becoming hydrated, all those subtle, vibrant herbal molecules are left behind in our bodies, carried perfectly by all that wonderful water to bring the body, energy, and mind/spirit back into balance.
All five of these herbs are available as a bulk herb to make tea, as a tincture to beef up the strength of the tea, in capsules for convenience, and as a fresh plant ally right out of the earth. These five Friends as well as how to use them are now known to us. We have understanding of how to use them, an easy and inexpensive way to use them, and an easy way to grow them as herbal allies. You know healing is available and coming to you if you will receive it…Friends, this is not an accident and we now have understanding about how to begin with the herbal healing of the easily-grown herbs of the D.C. area.
For more information on how to best utilize this week for your own needs, please come and visit one of our knowledgeable herbalists for assistance.
I suppose by now you are tired of me saying this is easy and gives us an affordable way to get started with herbs that also are too easy to grow…green thumb or not. Just prepare the soil, plant, water weekly (twice weekly for the little guys, the seedlings), and stand back to enjoy five vibrant herbal allies!!!